August 11, 2022

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Alex Jones Defamation Trial Explained: What to Know Amid Closing Arguments

On numerous occasions, radio host and conspiracy-theory peddler Alex Jones used his InfoWars show to make the false and baseless claim that the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was a fake. Jones took the stand Wednesday in the trial to determine damages in a defamation case in which the parents of a child who died in the school massacre are seeking $150 million in compensation.

The Texas trial, which began on July 25, is one of three similar cases against Jones over his claims about the Sandy Hook massacre in Newton, Connecticut. Jones has been found guilty of defamation in each case, with the trials now deciding how much he’ll pay in damages.   

On Wednesday, Jones faced questions from lawyers for the plaintiff and his defense team, as well as the jury. In response to questions from defense attorney Andino Renal, Jones said he understands it was irresponsible to believe the mass shooting was fake and he added that it was “100% real.” 

Mark Bankston, the attorney for the Sandy Hook parents, presented a segment from Jones’ InfoWars show that aired last week that made false claims about Judge Maya Guerra Gamble. Bankston also showed another clip from InfoWars, where Jones called the jury “extremely blue collar” and said they don’t know what planet they’re on. 

Then in a move that appeared to surprise Jones, Bankston revealed the defense accidentally sent him the entire texting history of Jones’ phone. This evidence went against Jones’ sworn testimony that he didn’t have texts regarding Sandy Hook. The Jan. 6 House select committee reportedly is preparing to request those texts and emails, reported Rolling Stone on Wednesday. 

After both the plaintiff and defense had no further questions, the jury wrote questions for Jones to be read by the judge. One juror asked what compensation Jones felt would be appropriate for the parents. He said any amount over $2 million would “sink us.” Earlier in the plaintiff’s questions, Jones confirmed that at one point his show was making $800,000 a day. 

Both sides rested their case Wednesday, with plans to give their closing arguments in the late afternoon. 

In this trial, parents Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis are seeking $150 million in compensation not just for emotional damage caused by spurious claims that the massacre was a “false flag” attack designed to encourage stricter gun control laws, but also for death threats made by people who believe in the discredited conspiracy theory espoused by Jones.

“I can’t even describe the last nine and a half years, the living hell that I and others have had to endure because of the recklessness and negligence of Alex Jones,” Heslin said in court on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post.  

At the center of the defamation trial are comments made by Heslin in 2017 during a televised interview with broadcaster Megyn Kelly and how InfoWars interpreted his statements to suit its own narrative. Recollecting the Sandy Hook shooting, Heslin said of his 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis: “I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.” Shortly after the interview aired, an InfoWars presenter, Owen Shroyer, argued without evidence that the timeline of events made it “not possible” for him to have cradled his child. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the ongoing legal actions. 

Who is Jones and what was Sandy Hook?

Alex Jones, 48, is an extremist, avid conspiracy theorist and media personality most famous for his radio and YouTube show InfoWars. Jones, who is based in Austin, Texas, has pushed conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, the bogus idea that a Washington, DC, pizzeria was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring patronized by high-ranking Democrats and, more recently, the disproven claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Jones was found to have helped fund pro-Trump rallies on Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, that precipitated the attack on the US Capitol.

A recurring theme of Jones’ claims is the concept of a “false flag” operation — an event staged to provoke political action. Jones said, without evidence, that the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a false flag operation “to try to bring down Trump.” Jones falsely accused Jason Kessler, who organized the white nationalist and neo-Nazi rally, of being a federal agent. A local resident, Heather Heyer was killed when a man plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters.   

In the Sandy Hook massacre, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 27 people. Lanza first shot and killed his mother at home, then moved to the school where he massacred 20 children and six adult staff members before committing suicide. 

Amid the outlandish conspiracies Jones traffics in, he has enjoyed large and influential audiences. Former President Donald Trump appeared on his show in 2015 when he was a presidential candidate. The YouTube channel for InfoWars had 2 million subscribers before it was kicked off the platform in 2018. (In April, InfoWars filed for bankruptcy though the reasons for that may have ties to the current defamation lawsuits.) 

InfoWars generated over $165 million in revenue over a three-year period, InfoWars producer Daria Karpova said in court on July 29. Much of that money was through products sold on its website, including health supplements and survival gear.

What did Jones say about Sandy Hook?

Of all the extreme conspiracy theories espoused by Jones, the claim that Sandy Hook was a “hoax” is the most infamous. Jones at one point argued that the massacre was a false flag operation on the part of the Obama administration, designed to precipitate stricter gun laws.

“My gut is, with the timing and everything that happened, this is staged,” Jones said on the day of the massacre. He compared the shooting to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 scheme to gain complete power by burning Germany’s parliament and declaring martial law. “Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag? To get control,” he said on the show. “Why do governments stage these things? To get our guns!” 

Jones began questioning the legitimacy of parents whose children were killed at Sandy Hook. Before speaking to the media about his daughter’s death the day after the shooting, a grieving Robbie Parker was seen holding a folded sheet of paper. Jones claimed without evidence that the paper was proof of a conspiracy involving the media or the government.

Jones later falsely claimed on InfoWars that several of the parents were laughing before giving interviews with media where they promptly burst into tears.

Crucial in Jones’ defamation case are statements made on Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly in 2017 and on a subsequent episode of InfoWars. 

“I lost my son, I buried my son, I held my son with a bullet hole through his head,” Heslin said of his first-grader, who died in the shooting. InfoWars presenter Owen Shroyer implied that Heslin had fabricated some or all of the story.

Testifying in court on July 28 and 29, Shroyer admitted to not properly fact-checking the report that informed his comments about Heslin. 

Why do Sandy Hook parents get death threats?

Several parents of children killed at the Sandy Hook massacre have reported receiving persistent abuse and death threats from people who falsely believe they were actors in a staged event.

“Alex lit the flame that started the fire,” said Heslin in court on Tuesday. “Other people brought some wood to add to it.”

One such perpetrator was a 57-year-old woman who in 2017 was jailed for sending a voicemail to a mourning parent saying, “You gonna die, death is coming to you real soon.” Another man was jailed for approaching the sister of Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed in the massacre, and falsely and “angrily charging” that Sandy Hook didn’t take place and that Soto “never existed.”

In testimony on Tuesday, Heslin said he suffered abuse online and on the street, and that his home and car had been shot at. 

“My life has been threatened,” he told the jury. “I fear for my life, I fear for my safety.” 

Lenny Pozner, another father of a Sandy Hook victim, told Now This News in 2018 that his family had relocated seven times in the previous six years due to security concerns. 

“Alex Jones is like the [WWE] of news,” said Pozner, who won a defamation suit against Jones last year. “Some people enjoy it, they can suspend their disbelief and enjoy what they’re hearing. Some people look at it and they think it’s real.”  

Jones has defended himself by saying he never actively incited violence. “I never said go to people’s houses,” Jones said on the Joe Rogan Experience in 2019.

What’s at stake in the defamation trial?

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have struggled to deal with misinformation, finding it difficult to strike a balance between preserving free speech and curbing harmful misinformation. Jones has been a central figure in this struggle, being among the first high-profile accounts to get kicked off big media and social-media platforms in 2018

Jones’ ongoing legal battles will determine whether US courts are an effective recourse for victims of harmful misinformation. “Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” Heslin and Lewis’ lawyer, Mark Bankston, said in his opening statement to the jury. 

For his part, Jones has attempted to recast the trial as a debate over free speech. When he arrived at the court on July 26, he came with tape across his mouth with the phrase “save the 1st” written across it, in reference to the First Amendment. 

“If questioning public events and free speech is banned because it might hurt somebody’s feelings, we are not in America anymore,” Jones said in a deposition last month. 

The First Amendment, though, addresses government efforts to restrict speech. It does not apply to individuals or businesses, and defamation cases by definition are about the harms caused by bogus or malicious statements.

Jones has continued to broadcast episodes of InfoWars, where he has decried the case as a “show trial” and a “distraction.”